Fever at Dawn

Péter Gár­dos

  • Review
By – July 29, 2016

If there can be a light-heart­ed book about the imme­di­ate after­math of the Holo­caust, Fever at Dawn is it. In the sum­mer of 1945, con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivor Mik­lós weighs 47 kilos and coughs up blood when the doc­tor in Swe­den, where the Red Cross has sent him to recov­er, reads an x‑ray of his lungs and tells him he has six months to live. Mik­lós stub­born­ly ignores this diag­no­sis. He is 25 years old, and girls are on his mind. Long­ing for a whiff of home, he obtains the names of 117 Hun­gar­i­an women, also sur­vivors con­va­lesc­ing in Swe­den, and writes the same let­ter to each one.

With his let­ters Mik­lós cre­ates a future out of noth­ing. From the many respons­es he receives, Lili’s, writ­ten on a whim from her hos­pi­tal bed many miles away, hits the mark. Soon Mik­lós is con­vinced she is the one, and woos her with his elo­quence, poems, and social­ist mis­sives. With­in a few months the pair is bat­tling their doc­tors to let Mik­lós trav­el to vis­it his cousin.”

This tale of quixot­ic romance could have been sac­cha­rine; instead it becomes a lyri­cal mem­oir in Mik­lós and Lili’s son Peter’s prose. Irri­tat­ing­ly, Fever at Dawn is labeled a nov­el,” even though the pro­tag­o­nist is often referred to as my father” and the author demon­strates great skill in weav­ing his par­ents’ let­ters into the nar­ra­tive. The author could have han­dled the mem­oir conun­drum of hav­ing to fill in parts that weren’t known to him by sim­ply dis­clos­ing that he had to imag­ine them. But no mat­ter, mem­oir or nov­el, Fever at Dawn is a charm­ing book, beau­ti­ful­ly written.

Gár­dos deft­ly ren­ders sem­i­nal moments in bird’s eye view, such as when Mik­lós and Lili meet for the first time, and he and the wel­come par­ty walk through the fresh­ly fall­en snow: The four of them resem­bled fig­ures out of a Hans Chris­t­ian Ander­son fairy­tale: dark crumbs on an oval white chi­na plate.” Sim­i­lar­ly, when a rab­bi arranges to meet Mik­lós on a coun­try bridge, the scene is cin­e­mat­ic: At the far end a man in a black ankle-length coat was rest­ing on a big stone. Mik­lós was amazed that any­one could sit still in this frozen world.”

Win­try Swe­den pro­vides the stark set­ting against which this romance has to warm, and the after­shock of the Holo­caust casts its shad­ows. Mik­lós dis­cov­ers a friend has hanged him­self upon learn­ing of his wife’s death, and though Lili and Mik­lós nev­er speak to each oth­er about what hap­pened to them in the camps, their mem­o­ries are sketched in for the read­er. But even then, this sto­ry cel­e­brates love and life, and some of the wounds of their hor­rif­ic past are healed, such as when Mik­lós is fit­ted with new porce­lain teeth after hav­ing lost his own in a beat­ing by Hun­gar­i­an Nazi thugs and hav­ing suc­cess­ful­ly court­ed Lili with his ugly met­al smile.

Relat­ed Content:

Annette Gendler’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Jour­nal, Tablet Mag­a­zine, Kveller, Bel­la Grace, and Art­ful Blog­ging, among oth­ers. She served as the 2014 – 2015 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Hem­ing­way Birth­place Home in Oak Park, Illi­nois. Born in New Jer­sey, she grew up in Munich, Ger­many, and now lives in Chica­go where she teach­es mem­oir writing.

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